The Outlook
      23 November 1907

Creative Americans: Mark Twain the Humorist


Mabie was a well known man-of-letters whose Creative Americans was a regular feature of The Outlook. In the excerpts below he argues that ultimately MT's greatest value will be as the "interpreter and recorder" of America's life in the Mississippi Valley in the middle of the 19th century. He compares that world to both the Garden of Eden and Elizabethan England, and calls it a "pure democracy," "as democratic" as any community in the world's history -- though the adjective "slave-holding" does get applied to it too, when he uses a piece from W. D. Howells' description of Hannibal (quoted more fully by WILL CLEMENS) near the end of the article.


THE name under which Mr. Samuel L. Clemens has written for many years, and which has become so much a part of him that one has to remind himself that it was assumed, was a stroke of genius. It is unique, and sets him in the environment and amid the vital circumstances which he, and he alone, has brought into literature. In him the Mississippi Valley found a reporter entirely and instinctively at one with its attitude toward life, its bearing in the presence of new conditions, its turn of thought and manner of speech. La Salle was the first man to make the voyage of the great stream to which a host of smaller streams are tributary; but Mark Twain was the first man to chart, light, and navigate it for the whole world. He has written many books of humorous invention and fresh, audacious spirit since the publication of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," and "Life on the Mississippi River," but the heart and soul of his work are revealed and preserved in these earlier books, and by them he will stand or fall.

    He is the most widely known American writer of his time. In the interest and attention of foreign readers he ranks with Cooper, Mrs. Stowe, and Poe; among Americans none is better known by other peoples save Washington, Lincoln, and President Roosevelt. To this host of readers beyond the sea and to the host of readers at home he is known chiefly as a humorist; but it may be suspected that fifty years hence, when his unique personality and laughter-provoking manner and mental attitude have become traditions, there will emerge a reputation based securely on a little group of books which many of those who are familiar with his later work have never read.

    When Mark Twain was born, the first great tide of emigration, which had gathered itself in quiet places along the Atlantic seaboard, and sent manifold streams through the passes of the Alleghanies, and fertilized the vast central valley of the continent, had touched the edges of the plains; and the man of prophetic mind, discerning the significance of its high-water marks, might have foreseen the second great wave which, after the close of the Civil War, was to sweep from the prairies across the Plains to the Pacific and obliterate the Great American Desert that stretched, like a vast blight, across the old school maps. St. Louis was so small a town that Mark Twain has somewhere remarked that he could have bought it for a million dollars if he had happened to have the money at hand; there were great lonely wastes. which later were to be fertile and populous; but when the creator of Tom Sawyer was a boy in Hannibal, Missouri, the Mississippi Valley was under human control, the river was crowded with craft of many kinds, and a unique habit of life had been developed along its banks. Of this primitive and powerful outgo of human energy and activity the river was both the occasion and the shaping force. The majesty of it appealed to the earliest voyagers, but its magnitude can only be seen by the imagination; for it drains half a continent, is fed by fifty-four navigable streams and by several hundred more of sufficient depth to float craft of light draught. It penetrated and opened up to trade and travel the very heart of the continent; it was separated by many days' hard travel from the early settlements on the seaboard news of the older world was slow in getting to the river population, and they were not much influenced by it.

    The cry "Westward Ho," heard on the Thames in Shakespeare's time, had summoned the adventurous, the restless, the lawless, from the older communities north and south and sent them into the immense section drained by the Mississippi. The East from which they came was still in the provincial stage of its growth, with its eyes toward Europe; the Southwest that was to be soon detached itself from the ideas and interests of the older world and boldly gave itself up to the work at hand and to the manner of life which its new conditions and tasks rapidly fashioned. The earlier immigrants had brought with them a complete stock of religious and social standards, which were gradually subdued to the new soil; the men of the Mississippi Valley were deeply affected by certain fundamental ideas of conduct, but they were very little embarrassed by external conventions of manner, dress, or speech. They developed the primitive virtues of courage, resourcefulness, self-reliance, a sense of reality impatient of the circumlocutions of formality, a speech which gained in vigor and vividness what it lost in breadth of expression. Men went straight at the fact, and brushed aside everything that hindered the shortest and swiftest hitting of the nail on the head. On the river a vast and appalling profanity was developed, but it was less a matter of conscious irreverence than of surplus imagination and a primitive instinct for the picturesque. A few oaths are binding, many are loosening; and the profanity of the Mississippi Valley was largely "giving the imagination a loose." Conditions were hard and work was harder; vocabularies were limited and, beyond the demands of routine activity, inadequate; exigencies of all kinds evoked a variety and force of expression to which the resources of profanity were equal. In the Far East cursing is a solemn and elaborate ritual of imprecation, casting the shadow of a terrible blight on one's remotest ancestors and projecting it over one's fathest descendants. It shadows one's entire racial career. In the Mississippi Valley, on the other hand, cursing was mainly an illicit use of picturesque language, or a reckless excursion into the realms of humor. Life was essentially fraternal and kindly; a broad, genial humor underlay and enfolded it, and much of the profanity was fundamentally humorous. Its interest lay in the striking effects of broad contrasts; it reveled in audacious comparisons, far-fetched similes, epithets that overflowed with suggested insult.

    The life of the river and of the communities that were tributary to it was probably as democratic as any the world has known. The squire, who was usually of Virginia or Kentucky descent, and was believed to be "worth" twenty-five or thirty thousand dollars, but, as a matter of courtesy, was credited with the possession of fifty thousand, was looked up to in a way, but without a particle of subservience. Every other man in the community was as good as he, only less fortunate. There was thrift, but very little greed; great wealth was unknown, but it was easy to make a living. Everybody was religious, but the current form of religion, although bristling with theoretical difficulties, was of a very comfortable sort and full of adaptations to local conditions. In Hannibal, when Mark Twain was a boy, the Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists were, he says, "the three religious disorders." He heard Presbyterian preaching for family reasons, but he went to the Methodist Sunday-school because "the terms were easier." There was a good deal of profanity, drinking, and loafing, but the more sophisticated forms of immorality were unknown. Certain points of conduct were also points of honor; the statute of limitations ran against legal but not against moral responsibility for debts; there was a spirit of universal kindliness and a charity which enfolded even the town drunkard, and treated him not as an outcast but as a ward of the community and an illicit local institution. He was a weaker brother, whose sins were condoned because he belonged to the family. Society in the Mississippi Valley in Tom Sawyer's time was a pure democracy, in easy circumstances, free from anxiety, charitable of everything except cowardice and meanness, taking life comfortably, with a broad margin of humor. It was as free from introspection as if Puritanism had never brooded over its sins and worried about its soul; it was as unconscious of traditional standards and classical models as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Innocence, and it led a happy-go-lucky life with serene trust in the good faith of Providence and in the square deal at the hands of the ruler of the universe. The light-hearted industry and contagious force which mastered the perils of the river and gave it a vast neighborliness are thrown into striking relief by the somber and sordid temper and the tragic conditions of life on the Volga as they have been drawn in black and white by Gorky.

    Of this old-time life under conditions which will never be reproduced, Mark Twain was the interpreter and recorder, and long after he has ceased to be remembered as a fun-maker he will remain the historian in a vital dialect of the early Mississippi Valley. . . .

    Mark Twain is so much a world-figure and so entirely the product of the old-time Mississippi Valley life, with its vast friendliness and its unconventional intimacy, that the extraordinary frankness and detail of the autobiography which he is now publishing need not disturb the more reticent and circumspect; like those very early ancestors of ours whose diaries he has edited, he has nothing to conceal or be ashamed of, and the material which he is storing up with a prodigal hand will enrich some future biographer beyond the dreams of avarice. It is a long way from Hannibal, Missouri, to Oxford, from the apprentice pilot on a Mississippi steamer to the scarlet and gray of the Doctor of Letters of a great and venerable university, and the record of it, in its final form, will be an American document of high value.

    The free, unconventional life of the Mississippi Valley of Tom Sawyer's town was an Iliad in shirt-sleeves, and there was grave question in the minds of some people whether such a stage of society was a proper subject for literary presentation; whether it was not too rudimentary for art. Mr. Howells, who is a humorist of very delicate and charming quality, has described Hannibal, Missouri, as "a loafing, out-at-elbows, down-at-heels, slave-holding Mississippi town;" and Mark Twain's records amply confirm the general accuracy of this description loosely applied to a whole section. Mr. James is reported as saying that one must be a very rudimentary person to enjoy Mark Twain. This is quite true; as true as that one must ba a very sophisticated person to enjoy Mr. James. Provincialism is not a matter of locality but of attitude, and the provincialism of the Boulevard des Italiens is quite as pure a product of local ignorance as that of a frontier mining town. Extreme sophistication and extreme rudimentariness are alike interesting, significant, and partial.

    In his records of old-time life on the greatest of American waterways Mark Twain deals with those facts of experience which, stripped of the accidents of dress and manners, are the supreme concern of the artist because they furnish the richest and most suggestive material. Into the unconventional, lawless, devil-may-care activity and overflowing high spirits of such a stage of development only a boy could enter, and in the stories of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain has penetrated to the innermost recesses of that life, and, with its crudity, profanity, and reckless indifference to conventions, has made us aware of its wholesome courage, its gay audacity, its indomitable temper, its contempt for artificiality, its superstitions, and its homespun idealism of courage, loyalty, and comradeship. Under an immense pretension of loafing it was a hard-working life; under an aspect of overflowing humor it was in dead earnest. Not until one understands that in the Mississippi Valley humor was the language of a brave, generous, and laborious people can one estimate the work of Mark Twain at its true value; not until one recognizes that the author of "Tom Sawyer" is a profoundly serious man at heart will he get any real insight into his significance as a figure in American literature or into his work as a vital contribution to that literature.

    Mark Twain is not a mere fun-maker, like Artemus Ward and John Phoenix; he is, in his time and way, a true humorist--a man, that is, who sees life, not irresponsibly and superficially, but in its broadest and most fundamental contrasts. Cervantes, Moliere, Shakespeare, and Carlyle were great humorists; Gilbert and Sullivan were fun-makers. It was not lack of seriousness which made the old-time people of the Mississippi Valley humorists; it was ease of spirit, surplusage of cheerfulness, a sense of being on good terms with Providence in an inexhaustible country, a prevailing disposition to put a friendly mask on the face of Fate. This is a fundamental attitude toward life, full of character, rich in eccentricity of speech and manner, redolent of that originality and spontaneity which have always been the joy of the great artists. What rich adventures of the spirit Shakespeare would have had in the Mississippi Valley of Mark Twain's boyhood! . . .

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